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The Re-imagining of Peter Darrell's The Nutcracker

Kelly Apter, freelance arts journalist for The List and The Scotsman, speaks to CEO / Artistic Director Christopher Hampson and The Nutcracker designer Lez Brotherston about how they brought this iconic production back to the stage.

Article commissioned in 2014 for the premiere of Scottish Ballet’s revival season of Peter Darrell’s The Nutcracker.

For 25 years, Peter Darrell’s The Nutcracker danced its way into people’s hearts. Originally created just a few years after Darrell moved the company from Bristol to Glasgow (changing its name from Western Ballet Theatre to Scottish Ballet Theatre along the way), the ballet had a rather unusual start in life.

In 1972, Act Two premiered in York, with Act One being added a year later, when the full show opened at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre. From there it played to Christmas crowds on numerous occasions, delighting audiences with its colourful theatricality and intricate choreography. Until finally in 1997, ten years after Darrell’s death, The Nutcracker took an extended rest.

Arriving at Scottish Ballet in 2012, CEO / Artistic Director Christopher Hampson was committed to bringing Darrell’s work back to the heart of the company’s repertoire – and what better way than with his well-loved The Nutcracker?

Peter’s The Nutcracker has seen this company through thick and thin, and when I looked at the production when I first arrived here, although I felt the staging was dated, the choreography is far from it – it’s beautiful. So I began to think about how we could present Peter’s choreography at its best for today’s audience – and the idea of having the production re-designed was born out of that.

Christopher Hampson

To that end, Hampson brought in award-winning set and costume designer Lez Brotherston. Best known for his long-time collaboration with Matthew Bourne, Brotherston has a reputation for creating fun, imaginative sets that stay in people’s memories long after they leave the theatre.

This time, however, he has been charged with ‘re-imagining’ the Nutcracker set, not starting from scratch.

“My brief hasn’t been to create a Nutcracker as I would with Matthew Bourne,” says Lez. “It’s been to work on what Darrell originally wanted – but at the same time acknowledge that those sets and costumes, as fantastic as they were, were designed 40 years ago.

“They were also made piecemeal, because Act Two was created first and then added to, so it was never conceived at the same time as a whole piece. My job as an outsider is to look at it, and try and pull strands together and make links within the work that already exist, without bringing in anything new.”

Three clowns dance together, holding one up on the others' shoulders

It was not only Brotherston’s theatre credentials that made him perfect for the job, however. As a student at Central School of Art and Design, his tutor was none other than Philip Prowse – the designer who worked with Darrell on the original Nutcracker. Remaining respectful of Darrell’s vision and Prowse’s designs has been crucial – but so has putting his own stamp on it.

“There are very definite things that made it the Darrell production, that we couldn’t mess around with,” explains Lez. “For instance, there’s a very famous picture of the Christmas Ball that’s in every ballet history book. We’ve recreated that, but in a slightly different way. For example, Philip used brightly coloured sponge balls, but I’ve tried to link it back to the tree, so we’ve made them reflective, like large Christmas baubles.”

Sophie Martin as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Peter Darrell's The Nutcracker.

With new fabrics at his disposal, unavailable when Prowse was designing, Brotherston could also create brand new Victorian evening gowns for the Ball scene.

“The original costumes don’t exist anymore so there’s nothing for me to copy,” says Lez. “There are designs, but they’re just little sketches. So all I could do was take the silhouette and the period, then design my own dresses using my own colour scheme and detail.” The result, as you’ll see on stage, is beautiful.

Both Hampson and Brotherston looked primarily to archive material (notation, designs, photos) for their direction – but when it came to characterisation, it was handy to have some nearby personnel to call on. Scottish Ballet’s Deputy Artistic Director at the time, Paul Tyers danced in one of the first ever performances of Darrell’s Nutcracker. The company’s Rehearsal Director, Oliver Rydout danced in one of the last.

While Scottish Ballet Principal, Christopher Harrison has made the remarkable progression of playing one of the children in the 1990s to playing the Prince today.

“What is fantastic about this production is that it has touched so many lives in so many ways,” says Christopher Hampson, “both in terms of audience members and dancers. There are some lovely journeys.”

Just as Christopher Harrison got his start on the professional stage in Darrell’s The Nutcracker, 35 children from around Scotland are about to start their journey. Auditions were held in Glasgow and Aberdeen, to find the right young dancers to play Clara, Fritz and their friends. This, as Hampson discovered, was no easy task.

“It was quite a challenge because you want the children to look like children, so they need to be very little,” he explains. “But they also need to have a certain amount of dance experience. Clara in particular is on stage right the way through the ballet, so we really needed to be secure with her. It is quite a difficult role to cast.”

Darrell was known as a risk-taker, who would find new and interesting ways to entertain an audience. Looking back wasn’t his style – if a production was being re-visited, he would see how it could be developed or improved. So it seems a fairly safe bet that Hampson would have his seal of approval.

“The important thing is that we’re doing The Nutcracker in a new way,” says Christopher. “And I know Peter would have done that, because he did it continually. Every time The Nutcracker was revived he changed something. So I like to think that if Peter were re-imagining this production he would be making change, too.”

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